J2K Capraio starts Indiana’s first underground cheese cave
I close my eyes and take a long, deep breath. I hold it in until my diaphragm feels tight and full, then I release it slowly, pushing out every last bit of air. Then I do it again and again.
This isn’t my everyday meditation practice. It’s me, underground, breathing in the funky aromas of J2K Capraio’s new cheese cave, the only one of its kind in Indiana.
“No one can re-create the flavor of what we are doing in Walkerton, Indiana, anywhere else in the world,” says Joe Klinedinst, co-owner of J2K Capraio farm and creamery in Walkerton and Oh Mamma’s on the Avenue, a cheese shop in South Bend, IN. “It’s all about the depth of flavor, where it came from, the terroir, the taste of place.”
Since 1999, Joe and his wife, Jody, have operated a 23-acre goat dairy and creamery. At any given time, they have 60 to 70 Nubian, French Alpine and Lamancha goats on six acres of pasture.
“Some of the best cheeses are made by mixing these types of milks,” says Joe.
The farm is Certified Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World. According to agreenerworld.org, this is “the only label that guarantees animals are raised outdoors on pasture or range for their entire lives on an independent farm using truly sustainable, high-welfare farming practices.”
Every year, the farm grows 10 to 12 acres of alfalfa. According to Joe, growing alfalfa allows them to control the quality of food the goats eat in the winter, and it allows them to maintain a consistent taste of place—terroir.
“Obviously our animals cannot graze in the winter. Alfalfa has a high calcium content and gives our goats the nutrition they need in the winter months to produce rich milk,” says Joe. “The key to quality cheese is quality milk.”
Joe and Jody are “pretty much self-taught” from years of practice, trial and error. Every year they invest in professional cheesemaking training— conferences, classes, festivals—and every year they challenge themselves to make one to two styles of cheese that they’ve never made before.
In 2001, they started selling artisan cheese from all over the world at the South Bend Farmers Market. In 2006, they added the cheese they make on the farm to their lineup of offerings at the market. In 2013, they opened Oh Mamma’s on the Avenue, where they sell cheese, charcuterie, olives, artisan crackers and jams—plus housemade gelato, sandwiches and more.
Oh Mamma’s on the Avenue and J2K Capraio are among a handful of businesses in the country that own this process from start to finish— from dairying, to cheesemaking, to selling directly to customers. And they just launched a regional wholesale distribution company, Cheese Savors, that sells J2K Capraio and Parish Hill Creamery (Vermont) cheese brands to retail stores and restaurants in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.
“Having the cheese shop, where we source cheese from all over the country and the world, has allowed us to sample and experience hundreds of diverse cheese flavors,” says Joe. “We noticed a special depth and quality to those cheeses aged under the earth.”
The flavor complexity and the positive customer response to cave-aged cheeses inspired Joe and Jody to build a cheese cave. After two years of dreaming, they were ready to start the project in December 2016. And this spring, they started aging goat and cow’s milk cheeses in the first underground cheese cave in Indiana on their property in Walkerton. According to Joe, this cheese cave is the first of its kind in Indiana to be under earth and geothermally regulated.
The 40-by-16-by-9-foot cave has PVC pipes buried under its foundation that bring in air to regulate the temperature. This process imitates the airflow that would come through cracks and crevices in the rock walls of a natural cave.
“We can get the Earth’s temperature in here,” says Jody. “Holding the cheese at right about 52 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.”
The cave can hold around 20,000 pounds of cheese. Joe and Jody hope to fill it up this year with Italian-style farmhouse cheese; Spanish-style cheeses, like manchego; “smear-ripened, ooey-gooey stinky cheeses”; blues; Gorgonzola; Cambozola; and more.
You can find J2K Capraio cheese in a few retail and restaurant locations across Michiana and Chicagoland, including Oh Mamma’s On The Avenue, Purple Porch Co-op and Crooked Ewe Brewery & Ale House in South Bend, IN, and Lea French Street Food and Gotta B Crepes in Chicago. It also sells at five farmers markets: two in Michiana—South Bend Farmers Market and Skip’s European Farmers Market in New Buffalo, MI—and three in Chicago—Green City Market, Logan Square Farmers Market and Oak Park Farmers Market.
Joe and Jody’s four children help with chores, cheesemaking and selling at the shop and farmers markets. They have two full-time cheesemakers (including Joe) and a handful of part-time employees at the farm and cheese shop.
“Our employees and dozens of friends and community members have been with us on this journey, helping us make this happen,” says Jody. “They aren’t just working, they are dreaming and creating with us.”
It all comes back to that unique sense of community and sense of place—terroir. J2K Capraio is putting Michiana on the map with flavor that can only be found here. For Joe and Jody, it’s a craft driven by passion.
“Raising dairy goats is a lifelong passion for me,” says Joe. “We are on the forefront of a movement.”
Jody says it’s all about love: “I just love to eat cheese.”
Oh Mamma’s On The Avenue
1202 Mishawaka Ave.
South Bend, IN